Toledo’s most popular attraction and strongest tour-group magnet is Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo (Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo).
That’s a mouthful for sure, but given its size, there’s no chance of confusing it with any other church in town, so it’s usually just called “The Cathedral.”
The streets around the cathedral are narrow and buildings are clustered close, so it’s difficult to appreciate just how big the place is.
There are a couple of ways to get a feeling for its scale. The first way is to take the fun and cheap tourist-train tour from Plaza de Zocodover which stops for a panoramic view of Toledo on the ridge on the opposite side of the Tagus River.
The second, is to just walk in the main entrance. And it’s a guarantee your eyes will be drawn up toward the heavens, and the first word out of your mouth will be Wow! The main hall is 400 feet long, 200 feet wide, and 150 high – in a word: enormous.
Imagine it’s the 16th Century, and you’re a peasant farmer who has walked from his tiny, rustic home in the countryside to attend Sunday mass. The contrast between your house and this lavish building couldn’t be more extreme, and all you feel is awe; which is exactly what the clergy had in mind. This is undoubtedly the House of God, and you disrespect it at your peril.
It took 250 years (1226-1493) to build this massive cathedral. From the exterior it appears Gothic. But each successive cardinal wanted to leave his mark on the church, so the interior is a mix of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical.
The elaborate interior has the finest wrought-iron work, exquisite stone and wood carvings, and vibrant, 500 year-old stained glass windows. The finest craftsmen and stone masons worked their magic over the years, and obviously, no expense was spared.
The high altar, choir, chapter house, and all the chapels tell Biblical stories and are replete with symbolism, which would take a Christian theologian to fully understand all the messages and nuances. But the amazing architecture and elegant artwork can be appreciated on its own, and the combined effect is astounding.
The High Altar has real gold on carved wood with scenes depicting the life of Christ. Above the altar, the view up to the intricately detailed vaulted ceiling is stunning.
Facing the High Altar, the choir has some of the finest wood carving imaginable, with each panel illustrating the town-by-town Christian Reconquest expelling the Muslims.
The Transparente is a unique feature of this cathedral. In the 1700s a hole was cut in the ceiling to let in more light, as well as a reminder that God is light.
This Heavenly light falls on a Baroque masterpiece carved from Italian marble.
The Treasury is dominated by a luminous, 10-foot-high, 430-pound monstrance, which is a tower designed to hold the Holy Communion wafer (the Host). This 400 pounds of gold-plated silver and 35 pounds of solid gold is paraded through the streets during the Festival of Corpus Christi.
With all its world-famous artwork, the Sacristy is like a branch office of the Prado. There are 19 El Grecos, and masterpieces by Goya, Titian, Velázquez, Carravaggio, and Bellini on display. The most famous work in the Sacristy is El Greco’s The Spoliation (The disrobing of Christ).
In Europe, and especially in Spain, it’s easy to get “cathredraled-out,” but luckily, we saw the Toledo cathedral early in our trip and we were fresh. It has an astounding variety of religious art and the ornate interior is truly a marvel. On this trip, we also saw terrific cathedrals in Segovia, Salamanca, and Burgos. Each had its own character and it’s hard to pick a favorite, but Toledo was a great introduction and its Gothic cathedral is certainly one of the highlights in Spain.
James & Terri